The running joke in many families is that "Grandma wasn't the kind of parent to her children that she is to her grandchildren." Often, parents will jokingly (or not so) say that their parents let things go that they'd never do when they were being raised. Now, scientists have scanned grandmothers' brains as they're looking at pictures of their grandchildren and turns out there really is a neural difference in how grandmothers view their grandchildren.

"If mom says, 'No,' go ask Grandma!" is a common theme in many families where grandmothers love on their grandchildren in ways they didn't when they were parents to their grandchildren's parents.

Now, new research shows that a grandmother's brain function changes when she's looking at pictures of her grandchildren, suggesting that there's something unique about the way grandmothers feel toward their grandchildren and it's neurologically associated with emotional empathy.

James Rilling is a professor of anthropology at Emory, as well as the lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. He says,

"What really jumps out in the data is the activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional empathy. That suggests that grandmothers are geared toward feeling what their grandchildren are feeling when they interact with them. If their grandchild is smiling, they're feeling the child's joy. And if their grandchild is crying, they're feeling the child's pain and distress."
Contrastingly, the study found when the grandmas looked at pictures of their adult children, the parts of their brain associated with cognitive empathy was more activated. This suggests they were likely trying to understand what was going on in their child's brain--what they were thinking or feeling--but not necessarily as emotionally empathetic.

Rilling said that young children have traits that don't just affect a maternal brain, but a grand maternal brain as well. Because adult children don't retain the same 'cute factor' that their children do, they may not bring out the same emotional response in their parents (as grandmas) anymore.

PhD Candidate and co-author of the study Minwoo Lee said it's important to continue to study older brains outside of their problems with aging or dementia as grandmothers often play important roles in our social lives and development, particularly if they are close to their grandchildren.

RIling is a leader in neuroscience research of fathers, and says that there is emerging evidence in neuroscience for a 'global, parental caregiving system in the brain.' The assumption is that fathers are the most important caregivers next to mothers, but in some cases, grandmothers are and turn out to be primary helpers. An evolutionary theory generally considered the 'grandmother hypothesis' suggests that females tend to live long past reproductive years because they provide evolutionary help to their children and grandchildren.

Of course, a limitation to the study is that the participants were mentally and physically healthy women who were considered high-functioning grandmothers.

Additional findings of the study were about the issues grandmothers said they faced as grandmothers vs. primary parents. Rilling said that the main challenge was trying not to interfere when they differed with their children (their grandchildren's parents) in how they (grandchildren) should be raised/treated/etc.

And as most moms will tell you, this is something they too deal with as their mothers/mothers-in-law differ.

Still, the research suggests there's merit in working together for the best interest of the children on both a cognitive and empathetic level.

Go, grandmas! Go!

Image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock